From Ontario to Panama, Indigenous communities are rising up to resist Canada’s mining industry

Owen Schalk
Photo: Indigenous land defenders from across the Global South were in Toronto last year demonstrating outside the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada conference | Mining Injustice Solidarity Network on X

Dec. 19, 2023

The ‘green’ transition is spurring a neocolonial rush for minerals

Around the world, Indigenous-led resistance to mining and extraction projects have been intensifying, and it is frequently Canadian companies who are the aggressors, pushing forward with neocolonial land grabs and violent state-sanctioned repression when projects are opposed by locals.

This resistance is occurring within the context of a global rush for critical minerals identified as essential for the transition away from fossil fuel energy. While this transition is celebrated by the Justin Trudeau government, Indigenous-led resistance fights are ignored by Canadian leaders, who argue critical minerals are the panacea for our current energy and climate woes.

Last year, Indigenous-led protests exploded across Peru after the ouster of President Pedro Castillo, with Canadian mining companies a target of the resistance.

Indigenous people in Peru protesting the parliamentary coup that ousted socialist President Pedro Castillo Terrones, who represented a challenge the Canadian mineral industry in Latin America. 
Claudia O’Brien Moscoso on X

The Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, administration in Mexico has overhauled its mining laws, granting the state a larger role in the sector and triggering a legal challenge from Canada. In Panama, protestors shut down a massive copper mine, Cobre Panamá, owned by one of Canada’s largest mining companies.

Closer to home, Indigenous resistance to mining in Northern Ontario’s so-called Ring of Fire impedes the Doug Ford government’s extraction plans.

Serena Vamvas, an environmentalist leader in Panama, summed up the fiery mood when she said, “Politicians are worse than ever, corrupt in every way… They sell our land for nothing. But what makes me feel hopeful is that we are starting to wake up.”

These are just some of the challenges that Canada’s Critical Minerals Strategy (CMS) has faced over the past few years.

The critical minerals rush

Announced last year, the CMS is a national, international, and provincial-level policy. It aims to secure a steady supply of minerals needed to produce new technologies like electric vehicles (EVs), such as aluminum, copper, cobalt, gallium, lithium, nickel, zinc, and rare earth elements. In total, the Canadian government has identified 31 minerals as part of its CMS.

Of course, EVs are not actually sustainable, as extracting and transporting the minerals requires an enormous amount of water and carbon emissions. The Canadian-owned Thacker Pass lithium mine in Nevada is expected to burn around 43,000 litres of diesel fuel per day to extract the “sustainable” material: about 2.3 tons of carbon for every ton of lithium.

Across Canada, hundreds of lithium mines are in development and companies are constantly searching out new battery metal deposits. Critical minerals policies have multiplied across the country, from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific, from the Arctic territories to the prairies. Provinces without critical minerals strategies, like British Columbia and Nova Scotia, are developing them. Others, like Newfoundland and Labrador, have announced their strategies within the past few months.

Meanwhile, industry figures have the Northern territories in their sights, with the Canadian Mining Journal dubbing Nunavut “Canada’s newest mining friendly territory.”

The Canadian mining company Sabina's gold and silver mine site in Nunavut, one of many mining companies that have their sights set on Canada's north. In addition to the harm and disruption to northern Indigenous communities, the Arctic is also uniquely sensitive to climate change impacts, including rapidly warming temperatures, sea ice change, and permafrost degradation. 
Sabina Gold & Silver Corp.

Amidst this extractive push, Indigenous nations are being marginalized by Canadian governments.

“Despite the inherent mineral wealth of their lands, Indigenous Peoples have often been sidelined in the development of the mining sector. They have suffered disproportionate negative impacts from mining while reaping relatively few benefits from a multi-billion-dollar industry,” writes a team of researchers for Policy Options.

The Canadian mining industry dominates the global sector with as much as 75 per cent of the world’s mining companies headquartered in Canada — companies that frequently come under fire with accusations of severe violations of human rights.

Despite this, at federal and provincial levels, in industry publications and across party lines, Canada’s mineral potential is lauded. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called critical minerals “vital to our economic and national security.” Meanwhile, the United Conservative Party of Alberta, which often clashes with Trudeau’s Liberals over energy policy, has passed numerous pieces of legislation aimed at encouraging exploitation of critical minerals, frequently lithium. Likewise, Doug Ford’s Conservative government in Ontario has allocated a huge number of resources to critical mineral extraction.

First Nation leaders from the Ring of Fire region in northern Ontario demanding a meeting with Doug Ford set up a table on the front lawn of the legislature in September after numerous requests for a face-to-face meeting were ignored by the premier's office. 
Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias on X

Climate experts and scientists say that the CMS, and its promises of an EV revolution, does not bring Canada closer to its climate commitments. Canada has pledged to reduce emissions and shift to renewables as quickly as possible, which science says is the only way that humanity can prevent the most catastrophic outcomes of the climate crisis. However, emissions in Canada have continued to rise, while industry continues to seek out new oil, gas, fracking, and mining projects, locking in rising emissions for decades.

Last week, Canadian government representatives were in Dubai for global climate talks at COP28, assuring the international community, especially those in the Global South, that Canada is a leader in fighting the climate crisis, and is doing so while respecting Indigenous human rights.

The final text from the UN COP28 climate summit, issued on December 13, commits to “tripling renewable energy capacity globally.” Advocates are quick to flag that, with respect to “strategic minerals and the transition to ‘clean’ energy, there wasn’t a single commitment [in the text] to mitigate the destructive impact of extracting minerals on affected communities.”

In Canada and around the world, Indigenous communities are bearing the brunt of wildfires and extreme weather events caused by climate change, while at a legislative level, Indigenous leadership and knowledge are sidelined and dismissed.

“In a year when wildfires were far worse than any previous year on record, and Indigenous communities in particular were heavily displaced, fire suppression policies are increasingly being recognized as part of the problem and Indigenous knowledge is being called upon as a solution to protect people, communities and ecosystems from the consequences of climate change,” writes Maria Shallard and Janna Wale in the National Observer.

“However, despite the resurgence of Indigenous knowledge, there is still a long way to go before meaningful reconciliation and power-sharing define the climate policy space.”

They add: “There is a historic and ongoing lack of inclusion of Indigenous Peoples at climate policy tables where decisions are being made. This must change.”

Of course, Canada continues to be complicit in this exclusion of Indigenous peoples from climate discussions, while at the same time claiming to support “reconciliation.”

Canadian mining companies have been at the centre of numerous local uprisings across Latin America. Indigenous communities often face the weight of state-sponsored police and military violence. 
dtdchange on x

Furthermore, Canadian extractive industries — which governments at all levels are championing as leaders in the sustainable transition — have had documented negative impacts on Indigenous peoples inside and outside Canada. UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples José Francisco Calí Tzay visited Canada in March and, in addition to describing his conversations with various Indigenous peoples as “thought-provoking and painful,” criticized the conduct of Canadian mining companies abroad.

He “expressed serious concerns about the negative and sometimes devastating impacts of Canada’s extractive industries on Indigenous Peoples outside of Canada.” And he directed comments to the government. “I call on Canada to acknowledge its extraterritorial human rights obligations to ensure that Canadian transnational corporations are held accountable for human rights violations committed abroad.”

Resisting the Ring of Fire

Regardless of party or province, Canadian officials are spellbound by the riches underground, the “critical minerals mother lode” that they believe has the potential to power our sustainable transition and sideline China from high-tech manufacturing in the West.

However, at home and around the world, local communities, social movements, and left-leaning governments are not so enthusiastic about Canada’s efforts to expand mineral extraction.

It is being dubbed Canada’s “next oil sands.” In Ontario, the Doug Ford government has prioritized mining development in the remote and environmentally-sensitive Ring of Fire region in the James Bay Lowlands. The region is a homeland for 33 First Nation communities, with a population of approximately 40,000 people. It is about 5,000 square kilometres in size, located in the far north region of Ontario about 540km northeast of Thunder Bay and 1,000km north of Toronto.


In the contentious Ring of Fire region in northern Ontario, mining claims continue to climb despite organized community resistance to extraction projects. Such claims have increased 30 per cent since September 2022.

The majority of the mining claims fall within a vast wetland called the Hudson Bay Lowlands, Global News explains. It contains the largest intact peatland expanse in North America and the second largest in the world, estimated to store more than 35 billion tonnes of carbon. Chromite, copper, and nickel were discovered there in 2007, leading politicians to proclaim the site as Canada’s “next oil sands.”

Officials assert that Canada needs to tap into the Ring of Fire’s mineral resources to power its EV supply chains. However, damaging the peatlands under which these minerals sit would have a devastating climate impact.

If peatlands are destroyed, they not only stop absorbing carbon — they emit an enormous amount of carbon as well. According to scientists, “disturbing the peat soil on top of the deposits would do more harm to the global climate than EVs could solve.” In fact, the destruction of half the peatlands in the Ring of Fire region would release one billion tonnes of C02, “one and half times Canada’s total reported greenhouse gas emissions in 2021.”

Trudeau and Ford view the Ring of Fire as a central plank in efforts to build new EV supply chains. “[The Ring of Fire] is considered the next frontier… as Canada seeks to diminish its reliance on China for metals seen as crucial in the transition to a greener economy,” Divya Rajagopal writes for Reuters.

The Hudson Bay and James Bay Lowlands, stretching across northern Ontario into Manitoba and Quebec, are one of the largest peatland complexes in the world, estimated to store more than 35 billion tonnes of carbon. Despite its importance, the area is under threat from mining development after critical minerals were discovered there in 2007. Mushkegowuk Council Chiefs have called for a moratorium on the Ring of Fire until a proper protection plan is created for the area. 

The development of the region is a key part of Canada’s plan to be a global leader in the new electric vehicle battery industry, Naimul Karim writes in the Financial Post. Currently, the processing of battery minerals is controlled by China. Canada, along with the United States, has taken a number of steps in the last year to lessen its dependence on the Asian country for battery materials.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault told the Post that the government has been working with Indigenous nations in Northern Ontario, along with the province, to agree to a framework on how to mine the region. “Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to agree yet,” he said.

What about the duty to consult First Nations?

Amid millions in subsidies, a rush of mining claims, road building, and absurd declarations about the Ring of Fire’s riches ($1 trillion according to Ontario’s mines minister), local communities have organized fierce and committed resistance to the project.

The Webequie First Nation and Marten Falls First Nation have agreed to work with the province on the Northern Road Link, which will connect their communities to the Ontario highway network while providing mining companies with “reliable, all-season road access to potential mining sites in the Ring of Fire.”

Amongst northern First Nations, however, this plan is controversial.

Webequie First Nation Chief Cornelius Wabasse (left) and Ring of Fire Metals Acting CEO Stephen Flewelling (right) sign a Memorandum of Understanding on Ring of Fire mineral development in northern Ontario. 
Webequie First Nation

The Neskantaga First Nation, which relies largely on sturgeon fishing, worries about the disruptions that mining development will bring. In an interview with CBC, Elder Maggie Sakanee said, “I don’t want to see a road here myself. Not for me, but for my grandkids, my future grandchildren. They’ll say ‘Why did Grandma let it happen?’”

While Webequie and Marten Falls have agreed to work with the provincial government, they are a minority compared to the 10 Nations that have filed a lawsuit against the provincial government for pushing ahead with extraction despite their protestations. The Ford government’s efforts to speed up permitting and approval times for mines in northern Ontario “contains no plan to engage First Nations, meet treaty obligations to consult, or follow international standards presented in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).”

“The Crown’s current understanding on Treaty 9 continues to be a tool of racism and oppression. We never agreed to this.”

The basis of the lawsuit is verbal promises made during Treaty 9 negotiations. In the early 1900s, for instance, “Crown representatives told Indigenous leaders they would retain the right to hunt, fish and trap on their territories” and that “the Crown government could have some governance rights, though not the right to take over.”

The written document, however, declares that the colonial government can assert control of “such tracts as may be required or taken up from time to time for settlement, mining, lumbering, trading or other purposes,” The Narwhal reports. Importantly, the treaty document was not explicated for Indigenous leaders or translated into Cree or Anishinaabemowin.

Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Sylvia Koostachin Metatawabin said: “Back when Treaty 9 was signed, Canada and Ontario made a written text of Treaty 9 on their own, in their headquarters, before ever talking to us First Nations. They then came to talk to us and made promises and commitments to us orally that we agreed to. This oral agreement is not the written text. After they got us to sign, the Crown held out the written text — which we never agreed to — as the treaty. It never was the actual Treaty and is not now.”

Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias put it bluntly: “The Crown’s current understanding on Treaty 9 continues to be a tool of racism and oppression. We never agreed to this.”

Ten First Nations have launched a lawsuit against Ontario. Chiefs representing four of the Nations travelled to Queen's Park at least twice in 2023 to voice their objection to mining, logging and developing the land without their consent. 
Steve Lloyd on X

The 10 plaintiff Nations, represented by senior counsel Kate Kempton of Woodward and Company Lawyers LLP, are challenging the Ford government’s extractive push in Northern Ontario, a central pillar of Canada’s CMS. Their demands are clear. As Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation Chief Donny Morris stated: “We are putting Ontario and Canada on notice. No more development – mining, forestry, hydro or any other similar activities without our consent.”

Ontario gives out mining claims through the Mining Lands Administration System (MLAS), an online free-entry system that does not inform companies if their claim sits on First Nations land and does not consult any First Nations whose territory may encompass the claim — a violation of Canadian law, as consultation is required under the constitution and the Ontario Mining Act.

Wilfred King, chief of Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek, describes Ontario’s efforts to exploit the province’s northern mineral deposits as a “lithium rush.” Under the province’s free-entry system, he explains that “anybody with a computer, whether they be in New York, Australia, Hong Kong [can] stake a claim to an area in northern Ontario that's on the Crown land…This can be done in a matter of minutes." King has stated that “the online registry does not live up to the provincial government's and Ottawa's duty to consult on mining claims, since First Nations are only alerted about the claims after they've been filed.”

Ford refuses to listen to Indigenous leadership

The lawsuits and resistance have not stopped Ford from pushing ahead with extraction plans. Earlier this year, his government amended the Ontario Mining Act with Bill 71, the Building More Mines Act, which aims to increase production of critical minerals like nickel, copper, palladium, and lithium. Unsurprisingly, many Indigenous communities said they were not consulted about the amendments.

In their submission to the Standing Committee on Bill 71, the Matawa Chiefs Council stated that they had simply been “informed” of the amendments, not “consulted.” They accused the Ford government of running a “legislative bulldozer” through their lands to increase the province’s mineral production.

Neskantaga Chief Moonias has said that the provincial government does not view First Nations as “full participants” and “we don’t have a say at all.” In an interview with Global News, Moonias stated that locals are suspicious of mining activity because they’ve cooperated before, and it did not remedy long-standing issues like boil-water advisories and housing shortages.

Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias yells at Ontario Premier Doug Ford from the visitors gallery at Queen's Park. 
Evan Mitsui/CBC

“We’ve had mining in and around northwestern Ontario. You don’t see these First Nations prosper, many boil-water advisories, a lot of poverty,” states Moonias. “We’re always told we’ll get jobs, you will get this, you will get that, but nothing happens. That’s why we haven’t been able to really support what’s going on with the Ring of Fire.

“There are promises of prosperity, sure. We’ve been promised that many times before. It’s the rich getting richer. Once they’ve extracted the resources, we’re still out there with boil-water advisories, we’re still in a housing crisis, we’re still in a social crisis. It doesn’t benefit communities as of right now.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, “the pace of the global transition to electric vehicles depends” on the Ring of Fire.

If the global transition relies on the Ring of Fire, then it's also true that the Ring of Fire embodies the conflicts and contradictions at the heart of this transition: issues of land rights, local populations versus outside investors, significant environmental impacts, and a deep distrust of the mining companies on which this future supposedly depends.

While marching in Toronto with more than 1000 community members and leaders, Gary Wassaykeesic said, “I come from the Ring of Fire. They built a highway through my community for the Ring of Fire. We see the trucks go in, we see the trucks go out. We get nothing.”

At the same march, Chief Stanley Anderson of Wapekeka First Nation told Ricochet, “We’ve been fighting with the mining companies for decades already. We will continue to say no, because our future with the young ones [is] more important than money.”

Similar issues are at the root of the conflict around the Canadian-owned Cobre Panama copper mine.

Panama closes Canadian copper mine

On November 28, the Supreme Court of Panama ruled that the 20-year contract granted to Canadian mining company First Quantum Minerals is unconstitutional. The contract was for the Cobre Panama mine, an enormous copper project that accounted for five per cent of the country’s GDP. Copper, of course, is needed for batteries and other renewable technologies. As a result, it is one of the minerals identified as “critical” by Canada’s CMS.

Cobre Panama has faced several upsurges of resistance over its lifetime with the Indigenous Ngäbe-Buglé people often playing a lead role, but the past month’s protests have been the most intense.

Protests erupted in Panama in October calling for the rejection of a copper mining contract signed between the Panama government and Canadian multinational, Vancouver-based First Quantum Minerals (FQM). 

The government’s decision to grant First Quantum a new contract, and the lack of public consultation on the matter, led Panamanians to view the negotiations as a shady backroom deal that benefited the company and politicians, not ordinary people. On top of that, environmental groups have long been aware of the risks posed by Cobre Panama, including the contamination of drinking water and the deforestation of land on the mine’s thirty-two-thousand-acre plot.

As such, the country rose up in rejection of the contract. The protests forced the government to announce a referendum on the Vancouver-based company’s contract for December 17. On November 28, the Supreme Court pre-empted the referendum, ruling the contract unconstitutional. President Laurentino Cortizo then announced that the Canadian-owned copper mine would be closed.

Panamanians have celebrated the mine’s closure as a historic victory for environmentalism, mass mobilization, and ordinary people standing up to the greed of foreign investors. “This is a collective awakening because we went from being behind a screen complaining to going out and taking action,” said Vamvas. “It's a historic moment.”

First Quantum, meanwhile, has responded by suing Panama at the Miami-based International Court of Arbitration under the Canada-Panama Free Trade Agreement. The Canadian company is effectively trying to force the Panamanian government to ignore the ruling of its own Supreme Court.

In Tanzania, the eviction process for the Indigenous Kuria living near the Canadian company’s mine was “intimidating, coercive and sometimes violent and did not conform to human rights norms, nor to internationally-recognized voluntary standards.”

This is often how international arbitration clauses function: to pressure foreign states against nationalizing mining interests because of the financial penalties they might incur. “Arbitration has proven popular among miners as a last resort because of its relative flexibility as a means of dispute resolution with a binding outcome, and the legal recognition of awards from these cases in the courts of most countries around the world,” writes Chris Lo for MiningWatch Canada. And lawyers Sam Luttrell and Amanda Murphy agree: “An international arbitration clause… gives a cross-border contract ‘teeth’ in a way no other clause can.”

There are numerous similarities between protests against First Quantum and resistance to the Ring of Fire. Panamanians felt they had not been consulted on the mine’s future, that lethal environmental risks had not been properly addressed, and that everyday people would not see the benefits of extraction.

Mining a hostile world

The lack of trust toward the Canadian mining industry, be it in Northern Ontario or Panama, is the result of decades of Canadian government policy and industry prioritizing profit over the social, economic, and ecological concerns of locals, especially Indigenous peoples.

“The mining industry, like oil and gas, is a commodified industry. So we are not extracting what we need from the Earth, we are extracting for profit,” explains Iron & Earth’s Ana Guerra Marin.

The Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, administration in Mexico has overhauled its mining laws, granting the state a larger role in the sector and triggering a legal challenge from Canada. 

Throughout Latin America and Africa, there are countless cases of Canadian mining companies working with Ottawa to expand mineral extraction, regardless of locals’ grievances and concerns.

In Mexico, the AMLO government passed a series of popular mining reforms earlier this year. Canada responded by taking Mexico to court.

In Peru, when Indigenous-led protests erupted against the overthrow of former socialist Peruvian president Pedro Castillo, Ottawa unconditionally backed the repression of the protestors, including state massacres, because Canadian mining companies hold major critical mineral investments in Peru.

From December 2022 to September 2023, thousands of Indigenous Kuria people in Tanzania have been evicted from their homes to make way for the expansion of a mine owned by Canada’s Barrick Gold.

An activist with a message for Canadian mining company Barrick Gold. 
Mining Injustice Solidarity Network

According to a new MiningWatch report released last week, the eviction process was “intimidating, coercive and sometimes violent and did not conform to human rights norms, nor to internationally-recognized voluntary standards.” The Canadian government has not spoken out. This is likely because Ottawa has long supported Barrick’s activities in Tanzania, including by pressuring the Tanzanian government to lift a ban on exports of gold concentrate that was cutting into Barrick’s profits and helping the company resist Tanzania’s efforts to collect unpaid taxes.

There are too many examples to name — examples of Canadian mining companies and government officials disregarding local concerns and backing extractive investment regardless of the risks. We have seen this in Chile, in Guatemala, in Mexico, and throughout South and Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, and parts of Asia. Even when Indigenous activists are murdered for opposing investment, Ottawa comes to the defence of the industry, such as the case of Mariano Abarca earlier this year.

As Canada continues its efforts to exploit critical minerals at home and abroad, we will likely see similar conflicts erupting in the future, and we should expect the Canadian government to side unequivocally with the mining companies, justified by greenwashing, with the demands of the Indigenous people fighting for their homelands ignored.

[Top photo: Indigenous land defenders from across the Global South were in Toronto last year demonstrating outside the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada conference | Mining Injustice Solidarity Network on X]